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in the end it was all about love

In the end, it was all about love.

Musa Okwonga’s In the end, it was all about love is a captivating journey in three parts. The first, “Righteous Migrants”, introduces readers to the narrator’s love affair with Berlin – fraught, tempestuous and abidingly affectionate. The second, “Black Gravity”, ventures deeper into his inner workings, his fears, self-doubts and longings – as well as presenting the charming and slightly mysterious Dr. Oppong. And in the third, “Your Passport”, readers accompany the narrator to Uganda, on a trip to visit his father’s home village in the extreme North of the country.

Thematically, the book is permeated throughout by several recurring concerns. There is the to-and-fro, the loveless loving of the narrator’s chosen home city of Berlin. There is the ghost of the father, which becomes more pervasive as the narrator considers what it means to approach the age his father was when he died. There is the loneliness of a man who worries he will never find someone to share his life with, and the growing hopelessness of too many failed attempts. There is the constant doubt about having chosen the life of an artist who will never have the financial security the narrator yearns for, even as he refuses on moral principle to make choices to achieve such security. And through all of it, there is an inviting sense of humour, and the feeling that good friends and a nice piece of cake might turn it all around.

There are several stylistic choices that make this book stand out of a crowd. It isn’t a novel, though it does pursue a single character’s development to trace, in some measure, an arc of coming-to-terms. Its episodic structure, offering vignettes of the narrator’s experiences that sometimes build on and refer to each other but are never corralled into a linear narrative, both make for an initially choppy reading experience, and emulate the brief-encounter mode of living that seems to be so characteristic of the narrator’s life in Berlin. Sometimes this left me longing for the connective tissue between the episodes; sometimes it seemed this was perhaps precisely what the narrator was longing for – each episode somehow as lonely an island as he.

Another arresting choice is the use of the second person: the story is told in the ‘you’. In this way, the events that come to pass are ‘yours’; they are addressed to you, related as happening to you. The first time I encountered this technique was in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, where I was struck by the arrogance of the approach in presuming to know its reader. But in Okwonga’s book, the effect is a different one entirely. Though evidently the ‘you’ of the narrator occupies a positionality different from my own – he is a Black, British, bisexual man, rather keen on soccer – I felt invited in by the use of the second person pronoun to experience the world, in rather stark intimacy, through his eyes. Sometimes – as in his delineation of the fear that comes with being a Black person living in Germany – this is especially heart-wrenching.

It’s a slim volume, and it was so engaging, it felt as though the book had read itself. In addition, Rough Trade Books have published it in absolutely beautiful, colourful and unique editions. If you have a relationship to Berlin, you may find it vividly bringing to life certain city scenes that seem vaguely familiar – though it speaks of beers in cosy bars that have by now also begun to seem eerily distant. Let the narrator take you with him for a spell; you won’t regret it.

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